New Wine in Old Wineskins: The Neoclassic Aesthetic

New Wine in Old Wineskins: The Neoclassic Aesthetic

Posted by Utah Opera in Online Learning, Productions, The Rake's Progress 13 Apr 2015

When compared to earlier times, the music of the twentieth century is almost mind-bendingly diverse in its aesthetic influences. As the pace of “modern” life accelerated, so did the evolution of the arts. Where earlier musical styles, such as Baroque or Classical, may have held on for a long as a century or more, the various artistic trends after 1900 waxed and waned over periods of just a few decades or even a matter of years. After the unabashed emotionalism and musical story-telling of the years predating World War I, the interwar years brought a return to the objectivism and formal organization of far earlier times. Composers sought to liberate music from those elements that had been imposed on it, such as the stories represented in the program music of Richard Strauss or the human passions that filled the music of Beethoven and Brahms, and sought, in the words of Igor Stravinsky, a “wholesome return to the formal idea, the only basis of music.” For some composers, Neoclassicism meant a return to the ideals of Mozart and Haydn, while others channeled the spirit of the composers of the High Baroque, including Bach and Händel.

Neoclassicism manifested itself in classical music in a number of ways. Composers utilized pure formalistic techniques, including the sonata-allegro form identified with Classical composers, and contrapuntal techniques which reached their zenith in the Baroque period, such as fugue and canon. During the 19th century the symphony orchestra had grown to massive size, as exemplified in Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, known as the “Symphony of a Thousand.” Neoclassicists pared the performing forces down, composing symphonies for a Mozart-sized orchestra and creating chamber works for even smaller groups.

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Though he eschewed labels, Stravinsky could be considered the “poster child” for this Neoclassic aesthetic. The youthful works of his “Russian period” were influenced by the nationalism of the Romantic period (Firebird) and the iconoclasm of Expressionism (Rite of Spring). However, his mature period (1920-1954) led him to seek order and organization in his art. In one of 6 Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University (delivered 1939 – 40), Stravinsky stated that “the more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free.” Stravinsky replaced the Romantic ideal of an “Artist” working in isolation and loneliness, with the concept of the craftsman or artisan. The aim of art, in his words, was “to promote a communion, a union of man with his fellow mean and with the Supreme Being.”

The ballet Pulcinella was Stravinsky’s first foray into neoclassicism, in which he uses themes composed by Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-1736) and his contemporaries. The ballet, commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev, is scored for a chamber orchestra with a smaller sub-group. This type of scoring is similar to what we find in Vivaldi’s concerti grossi, where the full orchestra (ripieno) alternates passages with a smaller group of soloists (concertino). Stravinsky began with the aforementioned Baroque themes and added modern rhythmic and harmonic elements. In this ballet we see the idea of “pandiatonicism,” a common tonal technique in the neoclassical style. This tonal concept allows for the free use of all seven tones of the diatonic (or traditional major/ minor) scale with no regard for traditional harmonic progression.  Other works from Stravinsky’s neoclassic period include three ballets on classical subjects (Persephone, Apollo, and Orpheus), the Symphony of Psalms, and Symphony in C.

The Rake’s Progress is the culmination of Stravinsky’s neoclassic period and is clearly influenced by Mozart’s operas, one in particular. Stravinsky and his librettist W.H. Auden began their collaboration through mail correspondence, as Stravinsky was living in West Los Angeles, and Auden was based in Manhattan. Early into the creative process, Stravinsky flew Auden to Los Angeles so they could work through many of the details of the opera in person. During that time in November 1947, they also enjoyed social time together, and, in fact, attended a performance of Così fan tutte (accompanied by two pianos)! The juxtaposition of these two operas in our season is pure serendipity, but it is fascinating to identify the obvious influence of Mozart’s opera in Stravinsky’s work.

Firstly, the structure of Rake’s Progress uses Mozart’s ideal of a “numbers” opera, or an opera consisting of discrete musical numbers (arias, duets, trios, choruses), each having an obvious beginning and ending. This structure contrasts with “through-composed” operas of the late nineteenth century, such as those of Wagner and late Verdi, in which musical numbers flow seamlessly one to the next. The orchestration of The Rake’s Progress follows the classical model of pairs of woodwind instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon), horns and trumpets with a streamlined string section. The orchestration is not, however, exclusively classical, as Stravinsky has two players double on instruments that were not commonly used in Mozart’s time. The second flute player doubles on piccolo, and second oboe doubles on English horn.

The recitatives that separate the musical numbers are often accompanied by harpsichord alone, as in the Da Ponte operas of Mozart. Incidentally, according to a letter written early in their collaboration by Stravinsky to his librettist, W.H. Auden, the original intent was to use spoken dialogue as in The Magic Flute. “Bear in mind that I will compose… an opera with definitely separated numbers connected by spoken (not sung) words of the text, because I want to avoid the customary operatic recitative. (October 6, 1947).” It’s not clear when exactly this plan was altered, as no correspondence exists that dealt further with this subject. Most likely the pair changed their mind when they were working on the project together in Los Angeles.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out a couple of moments in which musical ideas and constructions of The Rake’s Progress blatantly pay homage to Così fan tutte, as is apparent merely in the visual appearance of the score. The opening musical gesture of Tom’s aria (“Love, too frequently betrayed”) imitates the opening gesture of Ferrando’s aria “Un aura amorosa.”

The whores’ song in Act I, scene ii, “How Sad a Song,” clearly parallels the mournful quintet of farewell from Act I of Così fan tutte. The halting nature of the sung melodic line paired with the agitated orchestral accompaniment is found in both examples.

The neoclassical ideal reached to musicians from all corners of the globe, from Europe to North and South America. A small sampling of other neoclassical composers includes Paul Hindemith (Mathis der Maler), Manuel de Falla (Concerto for Harpsichord, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Violin and Cello), and Ottorino Respighi (Gli uccelli). Noted pedagogue Nadia Boulanger was a lifelong friend of Stravinsky, and her admiration for his neoclassical compositions led to dissemination of this style to her students; the list of musicians who studied with her is long and illustrious, including Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Astor Piazzolla, and Darius Milhaud. nadia boulanger and studentsThis “New Classicism” provided a path for a number of composers who felt that classical music had traveled far enough down the path of Romanticism, with its emphasis on the artist’s individual voice rather than a vehicle for communication of abstract ideas of form and expression. They were ready to separate art from the artist and, in the words of historian Joseph Machlis, “exalt the how over the what.”

Materials prepared by Dr. Carol Anderson

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